The height of a tree depends on not just the seed, but the size of the pot you plant it in. Without space to grow, you’ll only end up with a shrub.
Similarly, the amount of progress you’re able to make depends on your spare capacity. Without time and energy to invest in growth, your life will stay as it is.
Spare capacity is a surprisingly neglected topic. It’s quite obvious—the more you can throw yourself into pursuits the further they’ll go. Yet, it’s rare to see people talk about cultivating it directly. You see articles about how to do something in only six minutes a day, rather than expanding your capacity so you have more than six minutes to do it.
Part of the reason spare capacity is underdiscussed is that much of it may be out of your control. A single parent working two jobs to pay rent can’t suddenly free up dozens of hours for random projects.
But some of the lack of space is self-imposed. A low-grade busyness permeates much of modern life, even for people whose material situation doesn’t demand it. Thus, I think it makes sense to think about spare capacity, even if we can’t perfectly control it.
Measuring Spare Capacity
Part of the problem is simply defining what it means to have spare capacity. We’re never literally idle—unless we’re unconscious we’re always doing something. We all have the same 24 hours in the day, so defining capacity in terms of free time is misleading.
A better test of spare capacity would be something like the following:
Suppose you had an idea for a project that was deeply meaningful to you, but wouldn’t immediately pay you or reduce your other obligations. How much time and effort could you invest?
When I was 23, having just graduated from university, the answer was pretty much full-time. Thus I was able to take on projects like the MIT Challenge  which absorbed me full-time for an entire year.
Today, my capacity is sharply reduced. I still have a lot of flexibility, but with a business and baby, yearlong side quests are out of the question.
A wrinkle in this formulation is that it makes it hard to see the difference between having low spare capacity versus simply having better things to do. A doctor who complains about not having time for her art may simply recognize that her career is more important than her hobby.
To make the test fair, the opportunity we’re speculating about to test your capacity would have to be worth more to you than your current options. Someone who can’t go back to medical school because she couldn’t afford to quit her current job has a capacity constraint.
Success and Spaciousness
Space tends to be inversely correlated with success. The higher up you go in your career, the more obligations and expectations. Buy a house and suddenly you have weekend maintenance projects you never faced while renting. A business that generates a hundred dollars a month demands less of you than one that generates a hundred thousand.
Given that the things we want in life tend to fill up our spare capacity, it’s misleading to say capacity itself is always the goal. Rather, there’s a trade-off—do the perks of success make up for the lost capacity?
In some cases, the answer is a clear yes. I wouldn’t dream of giving up the life I have now, just because certain projects I did in my twenties are no longer possible.
But in many cases the trade-off is more dubious. The old joke about owning a boat sums it up nicely: “The two best days in a boat owner’s life are the day he buys the boat and the day he sells the boat.” With great ownership comes great hassle, and a loss of spare capacity.
It’s a mistake to think of spare capacity as simply the lack of things on your calendar. Since we’re never literally doing nothing, capacity is seen more in your attitude than in your schedule.
Paradoxically, the busiest people can have the most capacity if they have the ability to put things aside when something important comes up. In contrast, if you aren’t able to give up Netflix for even a month to pursue something that matters to you, your capacity is limited—even if outsiders wouldn’t deem your life hectic.
I can think of a few factors that determine your spare capacity:
- How much effort/time is needed to sustain your current lifestyle. Additionally, how attached you are to your current lifestyle. Could you take a 25% reduction in income to pursue a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Could you quit your job to start a business, go back to school or switch careers?
- How ambitious you are. There’s a balance between how hard you’ll work to keep things as they are, versus how much you want them to improve. High ambition equates to greater capacity because you more easily find projects that are enticing enough for you to make sacrifices to your current lifestyle.
- Material circumstances. Wealth, unsurprisingly, gives capacity. If you can hire a nanny, cleaner, personal trainer or eat all your meals prepared, you can shift a lot of your energy into projects that an ordinary person might not. While my own experience is that material success often brings hidden drains on capacity , it’s obvious that financial success gives you more space.
- Work flexibility. Could you take a sabbatical? Rearrange your hours or work from home? Switch to part-time temporarily? Work takes up a majority of your available useful time, so if your job is rigid, it’s considerably harder to move it to fit new goals.
- Family and relationship obligations. Being single here definitely entails more capacity than having a family. But even within a family, different roles can change your capacity. If childcare or ailing relatives falls mostly on your shoulders, you might have less capacity than your spouse. The lowered capacity is often worth it (it certainly is in my case), but it can make it harder to tackle some goals.
- How many things are non-negotiable for you. Could you give up Netflix? What about socializing with friends? Exercising? This isn’t to say you should give any of those things up, but merely to point out the people for whom much of their activity is non-negotiable have less capacity than those who can create more drastic lifestyle rearrangements.
I don’t recommend making all of your decisions to maximize spare capacity. As mentioned previously, there are obvious trade-offs where the things you want in life result in some lost capacity, and the trade is worthwhile.
However, I think our lives would be better if we more explicitly took account of the trade-off of spare capacity. Additionally, since capacity depends on both attitude and circumstances, it helps to ask yourself what you might be able to do to hypothetically expand it. Sometimes the bars of the cage we sense around us are more in our imagination than in our reality.
A big part of the capacity you have control over may come down to your ability to tune out distractions. In that spirit, Cal Newport and I are working on a new course, Life of Focus, addressing just that. I’ll give more info soon!